Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles Still Matter

July 04, 2020
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On July 1st, the House Armed Services Committee derailed an effort to kill funding for the U.S. Air Force's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) replacement, the Ground-based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).  This was a big win for the Air Force because the arms control community has set its sights on GBSD and its primary target. In a recent opinion piece for The Hill, arms control advocate William Hartung draws from his new Union of Concerned Scientists’ report to call for the termination of GBSD, but the elimination of ICBMs altogether.  

The claims made by Hartung and the arms control community are another example of the misinformation, so often repeated in public concerning nuclear deterrence and the United States’ nuclear triad. Hartung’s argument, at the very least, mischaracterizes the nation’s nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) system, ICBM technology, and, most importantly, the role land-based missiles play in deterrence. Let us explain.

ICBMs and Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications

Hartung begins by arguing, “Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has rightly called these systems ‘some of the most dangerous weapons in the world’ because they could trigger an accidental nuclear war.” Most, including our adversaries, would agree ICBMs are “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world,” but this is key to deterrence.  As a previous article notes, Perry’s argument about “accidental war” neither reflects the technical developments made in the nearly half-century since Perry’s 1970s “close call” experience nor discusses updates to NC3 technologies/procedures/processes and how our senior leaders would respond given today’s safeguards.

Currently, the United States possesses the most advanced space and terrestrial based integrated tactical warning and attack assessment systems in the world. It provides “dual phenomenology” in which multiple systems are required to vet and verify any indications and warning received by a system. China and Russia also possess capable systems that are improving to equal that of the United States. Thus, the insinuation ICBMs are somehow prone to accidental launch because of an error in the United States’ tactical warning system is far-fetched.  

When Hartung suggests nuclear war is little more than one computer error away, he deeply misrepresents the nation’s nuclear command, control, and communications system, specifically designed to prevent the very mistakes they suggest. NC3 is built to be redundant and relies on both human and technical means to prevent accidental launches.

ICBM Technology

When Hartung suggests the current Minuteman III system is perfectly capable and should remain in service for several more decades, until land-based ballistic missiles are eliminated, he shows a misunderstanding of adversary capabilities. Since the MMIII was fielded in the 1970s, technology has progressed in dramatic ways.

Russia and China recently completed modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and are developing defensive systems specifically designed to mitigate American ICBMs. They are also hardening and burying facilities the United States would likely target. It should come as no surprise GBSD, the replacement system for the Minuteman III, is designed to overcome adversary defensive systems. Ensuring our adversaries know we can successfully strike is central to maintaining stable deterrence.

Although the specific capabilities of GBSD are highly classified, the need to field a system with 2020s technology instead of 1970s technology is apparent. When you consider ICBMs are the least expensive to acquire and most cost effective to maintain and operate of the nation’s nuclear weapon systems, fielding a highly reliable and cost effective system is a smart move.

ICBMs in Nuclear Strategy

Most concerning in Hartung’s editorial and the report is the misstatement of American nuclear strategy and glossing over the risk an ICBM-free nuclear force creates.

First, ICBMs are specifically designed to create a large number of targets—approximately 500—on American soil that require an adversary to specifically strike with more than 1,000 nuclear missiles in order to destroy America's ability to strike back. By setting the bar for success so high, ICBMs have helped prevent nuclear war and conventional war between the great powers for more than sixty years. Remember, nuclear weapons make nuclear powers and their allies unwilling to fight each other in a conventional war because of the fear of escalation.

If Hartung and his co-authors have their way and ICBMs are eliminated, the number of targets it takes to destroy the United States’ nuclear arsenal shrinks from 500 to six—all of which can be destroyed or severely degraded with conventional weapons. Bomber and submarine bases are targets that, along with their aircraft and submarines, can be destroyed by low observable cruise missiles and conventional hypersonic weapons all before any response occurs.

These characteristics make ICBMs the most stabilizing leg of the nation's nuclear triad. More than any other leg of the triad, ICBMs reduce the temptation of nuclear armed adversaries from striking the U.S. first.

Hartung’s suggestion that submarines are invulnerable is simply untrue. During the Cold War, American Los Angeles class attack submarines would wait outside Soviet submarine pens and successfully track Soviet ballistic missile submarines. Space-based assets and hydroacoustic arrays are becoming increasingly more capable of tracking submarines and will only be aided by quantum computing and artificial intelligence in the years to come. Thus, to say submarines are “invulnerable” is just not accurate.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, ICBMs remain as important to the nation’s nuclear triad as they were when first fielded in 1959. If the desire of Americans is to maintain strategic stability, eliminating land-based ballistic missiles would have the exact opposite effect. 

Don’t take our word for it. Just look at Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization. Both countries have focused their efforts on modernizing their own ICBM forces. If they are merely Cold War relics, why are our adversaries so focused on advancing their own ICBM forces?        


Dr. Adam Lowther is a professor at the U.S. Army's School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Ft. Leavenworth, KS. He was the founding Director of the U.S. Air Force's School of Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies (SANDS).

William Murphy is the Director of Senior Leader Education for Nuclear Command, Control and Communications at the Louisiana Tech Research Institute.  He is also an Air Force reserve general officer assigned to Air Force Global Strike Command.  

Brig Gen Gerald Goodfellow (USAF, Ret.) is the Executive Director of the Louisiana Tech Research Institute. During his 30-year Air Force career, he flew B-1, KC-135, and E-6B aircraft in support of the nation's nuclear mission.  In his current position, he is responsible for teaching all of the Nuclear Command, Control and Communications continuing military education courses within the USAF.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.



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